Why won’t they let the party end? Here’s one theory: Development people had always feared that the studio bosses were secretly illiterates who only pretended to read those dry stacks of scripts on their desk. Those fears seemed to be confirmed when they saw how much happier their bosses were about taking home stacks of graphic novels, which came pre-visualized and pre-set to maximum badass-itude. Once the comics well ran dry, they couldn’t force anyone to go back to reading dry prose, especially screenplays which are even duller than books, since they’re only blueprints.
Things got so bad in Hollywood that many screenwriters, myself included, were advised to convert our screenplays into fake graphic novels that we could then adapt back into screenplays. The most infamous case of this was a “property” called “Cowboys and Aliens”, which pre-sold for big bucks, then put out one issue from a comic book company that existed just to generate material for adaptation. The project has been cited as an example of what’s wrong with the system so many times that I was a little shocked to see a trailer recently and realize (1) the movie finally got made, and (2) the trailer isn’t even half bad.
Our president liked to tell a story on the campaign trail about an idealist showing up to help out with a local Chicago campaign only to have the boss ask him which political machine had sent him over. When he answered “nobody,” they responded “we don’t want nobody nobody sent.” They, too, didn’t want to create value, they just wanted to trade it back and forth. That’s become the American way. But there’s just one problem: Americans crave new stories. If we keep trying to tell original stories, the producers will eventually have to listen to us, even if they don’t want to, as long as we refuse to be embarrassed about what we’re doing.
Bait and switch time, people: before I get to the current crisis (bumped back to tomorrow), I want to look at another way that writers attempt to save themselves from the embarrassment of telling a story: postmodernism.
I wrote before about Shakespeare’s preponderance of adaptations and remakes, so let’s move on to sequels: We all know that sequels deserve no respect. Except the “Odyssey”, and “Antigone”, and the “Aeneid”, and “Don Quixote Part 2”, and “Huckleberry Finn”, and “Ulysses”, and Godfather II, and The Empire Strikes Back, and Silence of the Lambs, and… well, okay, I guess there have been a few good sequels. It’s always comforting for a writer to start with characters that people already love, and there’s no reason that you can’t use those characters to create a new artistic statement. Of course, you have to overwhelm the voice of the producers, who often assume that the audience will want the same story too. To succeed, the writer needs to be willing to make something as different as the “Odyssey” was from the “Iliad”.
Shared Universes: One of the hardest things about telling a self-contained story is that it has no consequences. If somebody misses it, so what, it’s not going to affect any other stories. When you accept the benefits of a shared universe, your story gains permanence, but that brings new responsibilities: “Dallas” infamously threw out a whole year’s worth of stories by having a character wake up and discover that the previous season had been a dream, but they had a unexpected problem on their hands: that season had featured a cross-over with its spin-off “Falcon Crest”. Dallas couldn’t say that those stories didn’t really happen unless they were willing to sever their shared continuity with a larger fictional universe, where everything has to “really happen” in a way that simply doesn’t apply to separate stories.
Nowhere does this concept reign more supreme than in superhero comics, but those same superheroes are now bringing the concept over to movie screens. Nobody would call the recent Hulk reboot a sequel to Iron Man, but it’s clearly set in the “same universe.” Of course, this may mean that they’ll soon learn the downside of a shared continuity: If Thor sucks, then Marvel may discover that they’ve devalued other successful franchises along with it.
Genre: This is the simplest way that stories try to put us at ease. “You may not have seen this before, but don’t worry, you’ve seen something like it, and we’re going to play by the same rules.” Strangely, movie rental stores have every movie divided by genre-- but no book store divides the “comedies” from the “dramas” and puts them in separate sections. They might separate out the “crime” or “romance” books, but that’s seen as a judgmental ghetto-ization: they slot books into those sections only if they clearly aren’t trying to be “literature”. Every movie goes into a ghetto automatically, so does that mean that no movie is as good as any piece of unclassifiable “literature”? (Maybe it just means that movies cost a lot more to make and so they can’t afford to just trust the right audience to gradually find them on their own—they have to market themselves very specifically.)
Almost every story finds a way to promise, “Don’t worry, this won’t be entirely new to you,” and that’s fine, to an extent. But artistic, cultural and business trends sometimes conspire to bring things to an extreme, like we have today in the movie business, in which original stories have become almost entirely devalued. How did we get here, and how do we get back? Let’s pick up there tomorrow.
In our culture, a housewife doesn’t have permission to create a fictional story, but she does have permission to repeat a true story. So when she wants to create or repeat a fictional story, she simply pretends that it’s true.
Most short-filmmakers (who are almost all student filmmakers) totally misunderstand the form. They think, “Well, I don’t have time for a story, so I’ll just focus on a poignant character moment.” Ugh. Sure, character is more important than story, but you can’t have one without the other. No matter how short your story is, there still needs to be a story, or nobody cares. People only care about characters if they’re in a story.
Tomorrow we’ll get back to the idea of how professional storytellers apologize for the stories they’re telling, and why that’s no good.
- This really happened
- This is part of the origin of why the world is the way it is, not just a metaphor for how the world is. You will see relationships you recognize and can identify with, but this is the first time those relationships were established. You are the way you are because they were the way they were.
- These are our ancestors. In the end, they or their direct descendants become the founders of this very city. Our current ruling family is descended from those founders, who were themselves partially descended from the gods. This story explains why we treat our rulers like gods.
- Because this is part of our foundation myth, everything that happens in this story has consequences in your daily life. If these events had turned out a different way, your life would be different. These events aren’t just metaphors for our beliefs, these were the actual events that were the source of our beliefs.